Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture” at SAAM

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  • ELEANOR JONES HARVEY: You may not have heard of Alexander von Humboldt, but while he was alive, he was one of the best-known public figures anywhere in the world. Humboldt is the kind of charismatic person who leaves an impact everywhere he goes. In 1804 Alexander von Humboldt made a six-week visit to the United States. For the next fifty years he has a sustained impact on five spheres of America’s cultural development. It’s art, literature, politics, science, and exploration. The 300-year history of landscape painting, in essence, owes part of its traction to Alexander von Humboldt’s visit, and to his ideas. He directly inspired American artists from Charles Willson Peale to Fredrick Church to George Catlin to Karl Bodmer to Samuel F.B. Morse. It isn’t just landscape painting, it’s actually all of American art when it comes to understanding the power of visual images to shape our ideas.

    Renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century. He lived for 90 years, published more than 36 books, traveled across four continents, and wrote well over 25,000 letters to an international network of colleagues and admirers. In 1804, after traveling four years in South America and Mexico, Humboldt spent exactly six weeks in the United States. In these six weeks, Humboldt—through a series of lively exchanges of ideas about the arts, science, politics, and exploration with influential figures such as President Thomas Jefferson and artist Charles Willson Peale—shaped American perceptions of nature and the way American cultural identity became grounded in our relationship with the environment.

    Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture places American art squarely in the center of a conversation about Humboldt’s lasting influence on the way we think about our relationship to the natural world. Humboldt’s quest to understand the universe—his concern for climate change, his taxonomic curiosity centered on New World species of flora and fauna, and his belief that the arts were as important as the sciences for conveying the resultant sense of wonder in the interlocking aspects of our planet—make this a project evocative of how art illuminates some of the issues central to our relationship with nature and our stewardship of this planet.

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